Tens of thousands of Yemeni workers left Saudi Arabia and thousands more are expected to depart in the coming weeks ahead of a planned crackdown on illegally registered expatriates in the kingdom, a Yemeni official said.
The exodus could further worsen Yemen’s already dismal economy, which leans on remittances from workers in oil-rich Gulf states, endangering the stability of a country seen by al Qaeda as a new base.
“Our figures show that 53,000 were deported since the beginning of this month because they were staying illegally in Saudi territories,” Abdulkader Eidh, undersecretary of the Yemeni ministry of expatriates, told Reuters on Monday.
“We expect the number of the deported to reach 150,000 after the grace period expires in ten days.”
The Yemeni official said hundreds of thousands of Yemenis have already fixed their legal status in the kingdom. He added the number of Yemenis in Saudi Arabia was close to one million.
Saudi Arabia is trying to reduce a black market in labour among the estimated nine million foreigners in the country, which the government says makes it harder for Saudi citizens to find jobs and economists say fosters inefficiency.
In April King Abdullah announced a three-month grace period, ending on July 3, for workers to legalise their status in Saudi Arabia.
Pro-democracy protests in 2011 brought Yemen, a U.S. ally, to the brink of civil war and dealt a blow to its economy. The country faces a rebellion by Zaydi Shi’ites in the north, an Islamist insurgency in the south and east, and a southern secessionist movement.
Saudi Arabia’s mass expulsion of Yemeni workers in 1990 in retaliation for Sanaa’s support of Iraq after it invaded Kuwait, caused an economic collapse that accelerated the impoverished Arab country’s 1994 civil war.
The World Bank estimated that Yemenis’ personal remittances in 2011 amounted to $1.4 billion, or around 4.2 per cent of gross domestic product. A third of its 25 million people live on less than $2 a day.
Large crowds of Yemeni workers have been queueing daily outside the country’s embassy in the Diplomatic Quarter in the Saudi capital Riyadh for weeks, waiting for hours at a time in scorching summer heat to process their documents.
Those who could not fix their status endured similar waits at official deportation centers which facilitated their departure.
More than 1.5 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia have changed their residence status since April ahead of the planned crackdown.